How to Write About Negative Leads

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

In my writing workshops I talk about three kinds of lead characters: the positive, the negative, and the anti-hero.

The positive lead is the traditional hero. This is someone who operates according to the shared morality of the community. It might be an ordinary man or woman who gets caught up in extraordinary circumstances (e.g., Tell No One). Or, it could be a hero with skills, like Jonathan Grave or Liam Neeson in Taken.

We root for positive leads because they represent us in the fight against evil and bad guys.

The anti-hero is someone who has been divorced from the community for some reason. They usually live according to their own code. The plot involves them being dragged into some trouble happening within the community. The story question then is: will they be reconciled to the group, or once again assume the role of outcast?

Rick in Casablanca begins the film sticking his “neck out for nobody.” Gradually he is pulled into a Nazi resistance scheme. At the end, he rejoins the community and the war effort. Ethan Edwards in The Searchers comes in from the wilderness and gets involved in finding his niece, who has been taken captive by Comanches. At the end, in one of the most memorable shots in movie history, he once again is consigned to the wilderness again.

Then there is the negative lead. This is someone who is engaged in an enterprise that offends our collective morality. The quintessential example is Ebenezer Scrooge, but also many of the leads in crime and noir fiction, such as Jack in The Vengeful Virgin, a book I wrote about last week. Indeed, some of the most popular fiction out there is about negative leads. Gone Girl anyone?

So what’s the secret to this kind of story? I’ve identified eight motifs in this regard:

  1. The Slow-Motion Car Wreck

You know how people are (including you). You’re on the freeway and there’s a big wreck ahead, even on the other side of the median. Flashing lights and crunched metal. You slow down a bit for a look. It’s human nature.

A book about a negative lead can be like the wreck itself, in slo-mo. I think of Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, where the lead, his brother and a friend discover a crashed plane with a big stash of drug money. Should they report it? Or try to keep it? And when they decide to keep it, will they be able to sustain the secret without bringing disaster upon themselves and their loved ones?

I remember reading the book and actually saying out loud, a couple of times, “Don’t do that … please don’t do that!” And then they do it. I had to turn the pages, watching this wreck, hoping against hope that these guys wouldn’t descend further into the darkness.

  1. The Redemption Hope

Another reason to read about a negative lead is hope for their redemption. This is the way it is with Scrooge as he starts to get his angel visitations. It’s also what happens with Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

The key to this kind of story is to show us, early on, that the character has the capacity for moral change. With Scrooge, it begins to happen when he is taken to his boyhood past, his loneliness at school. It brings out deep emotion in Scrooge. There’s a heart in there after all! We read on to see if that heart can be warmed again.

With Scarlett, it’s her moxie, her guts, her strength. Like when she defies polite society by dancing with Rhett while she’s supposed to be in mourning. She uses her spunk selfishly most of the time. If only she can turn it in the right direction before it’s too late! If she does, frankly, we would give a damn. So we read on.

  1. Inner Turmoil

Sometimes, seeing what the wrong choices do to the inside of a character makes us want to find out what happens. Witnessing the emotional turmoil of a character automatically triggers our interest, because we experience it ourselves all the time.

In The Vengeful Virgin, Jack Ruxton is a knot of conflicting emotions once he falls for the alluring Shirley Angela and the two hatch a plot to murder the old man she cares for. Brewer gives us the insides of Jack throughout, as in:

Doom. You recognize Doom easily. It’s a feeling and a taste, and it’s black, and it’s very heavy. It comes down over your head, and wraps tentacles around you, and sinks long dirty fingernails into your heart. It has a stink like burning garbage. Doom. I sat up all night with the lights on. Waiting.

Passages like that kept me going, even though what Jack was doing was immoral. There’s a sort of catharsis in seeing massive inner conflict in someone else. We can put our own on hold while we’re reading!

  1. Comeuppance

This idea applies when we read about a real crumb. We want him to get his just desserts. He deserves to go down.

Once again, I turn to The Vengeful Virgin, because there’s a point in the middle of the book where any sympathy we might have for Jack is wiped out. His jilted lover, Grace, keeps hounding him, and getting in the way of his plans with Shirley. Grace is not a bad person, just stupidly in love with the guy.

She surprises him one night outside Shirley’s house. He’s so outraged he hits her. Hard. Staggers her. Then hits her again. Then twists her arm behind her back and shoves her into her car.

This disturbing turn makes us want to see Jack get what he deserves. (**Spoiler alert** … if you plan to read The Vengeful Virgin, skip down to #5.)

In an ending that rivals, perhaps even surpasses, Jim Thompson, Jack Ruxton, guilty of two murders, is shot by a drunken and envious Shirley, who then turns the gun on herself. She dies, but he survives, only to be arrested, tried, and sentenced to the electric chair. The last lines:

Yes, that’s how it was. Grace, she was always burning. Then Shirley and I began burning. And then the money burned. And now there was time to burn.

Then, after there was no more time, they would burn me.

 

  1. Love Conquers All

With a hat tip to Huey Lewis, there’s just something about the power of love. Especially in noir. In films like Gun Crazy and They Live By Night, doomed lovers grab our hearts even though we know it won’t end well. It can’t. In the moral universe of noir, you pay for your sins.

James M. Cain’s classic The Postman Always Rings Twice bonds us to the murderous couple. Drawn first by lust, by the time the book gets to the end, the two are truly part of each other. There’s poignancy on the last page as Frank Chambers awaits his appointment with the electric chair (Old Sparky is a familiar last stop in these books!):

Here they come. Father McConnell says prayers help. If you’ve got this far, send up one for me, and Cora, and make it that we’re together, wherever it is.

 

  1. At least he’s better than the other crumbs

One of the hardest of the hardboiled writers was Richard Stark, pen name of prolific author Donald Westlake. He created Parker—thief, killer, heist man. Not a shred of sentimentality in this guy. So why do we root for him? In the first book, The Hunter, Parker has been double-crossed and left for dead after a heist. He goes after the money he’s owed, taking on “the outfit” (the crime syndicate) to get it back. Not the whole stash, you understand. Just his half of it.

In other words, compared to the other criminals involved, Parker’s cause is “just.” It’s a remarkable feat, which is why no less than seven movies have been made about this character (the two best are Point Blank and Payback}.

  1. Such a charmer

Tom Ripley, the protagonist of several novels by Patricia Highsmith, has been described as “charming, literate, and a monster” (Roger Ebert). Also “a likable psychopath.” Talk about a challenge! Yet Highsmith pulls it off.

  1. Will They Get Away With It?

Finally, we sometimes read or watch a criminal caper story and actually find ourselves hoping, just a little (or maybe even a lot), that the negative leads get away with it.

My favorite film example is The Asphalt Jungle. Directed by John Huston, the film is about a group of thieves coming together to pull off a big heist. There’s a sympathy factor in operation for each of these desperate men, and you find yourself pulling for them even as the cops pull the net tighter and tighter. It’s really one of the great crime films of all time, with a memorable early appearance by Marilyn Monroe.

Okay! Let’s open this up. What’s your favorite book or movie about a negative lead? What made it work for you?

***

 

BTW, if you want to get in on the ground floor of a series with a hero, try ROMEO’S RULES

6+

Top Ten Things You Need to Know About Characters

Scarlett210. Characters are how  readers connect to story

I’ve read books about the history of eras, and while interesting, they are nothing compared to a good biography (I’m currently reading H. W. Brands’ biography of Andrew Jackson). Why? Because we are more fascinated with people than epochs. (I once heard history described as “biography on a timeline.”)

We all love twisty turny plots, chases, love, hate, fights, freefalls––all of that. But unless readers connect to character first, none of that matters.

9. On the other hand, character without plot is a blob of glup

Contrary to what some believe, a novel is not “all about character.” To prove the point, let’s think about Scarlett O’Hara. Do you want 400 pages of Scarlett sitting on her front porch, flirting? Going to parties and throwing hissy fits? I didn’t think so. What is it that makes us keep watching Scarlett? A little thing called the Civil War.

A novel is not a story until a character is forced to show strength of will against the complications of plot. Plot brings out true character, rips off the mask, and that’s what readers really want to see.

“Blob of glup,” by the way, is a term I remember from my mom reading me The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber. I always thought it quite descriptive.

8. Lead characters don’t have to be morally good, just good at something

Two of the most popular books in our language are about negative characters. I define a negative character as one who is doing things that the community (theirs, and ours) do not approve of, that harm other people. A Christmas Carol has Scrooge, and Gone With the Wind has Scarlett. Why would a reader want to follow them?

Two reasons: They want to see them redeemed, or they want to see them get their “just desserts.”

The trick to rendering a negative Lead is to show, early, a capacity for change. When Scrooge is taken back to his boyhood, we see in him, for the first time, some compassionate emotion. Maybe he’s not a lost cause after all!

Or show that the negative character has strength, which could be an asset if put to good use. Scarlett has grit and determination (fueled by her selfishness) and just dang well gets things done. We admire that, and hope by the end of the book she’ll turn it to something that actually helps those in her world. She does, but by then it’s too late. Rhett just doesn’t give a damn.

7. Characters need backstory before readers do

Yes, you have to know your character’s biography, at least the high points. One question I like to ask is what happened to the character at sixteen? That’s a pivotal, shaping year (unless your character actually is sixteen, in which case I’d go to age eight).

But you don’t have to reveal all the key information to readers up front. In fact, it’s good to withhold it, especially a secret or a wound. Show the character behaving in a way that hints at something from the past, currents below the surface. Why does Rick in Casablanca stick his neck out for nobody? Why does he play chess alone? Why doesn’t he protect Ugarte? Why doesn’t he love Paris? We see him act in accord with these mysteries, and don’t get answers until well into the film.

6. But readers want to know a little something about the character they’re following

Against the advice that you should have absolutely zero backstory in the first fifty pages, I say do what Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Connelly and most every bestselling novelist does: sprinkle in bits of backstory in the opening pages. But only what is necessary to help readers bond to character.

A rule of thumb I give in my workshops is this: In the first ten pages, you can have three sentences of backstory, used all together or spread out. In the next ten pages, you can have three paragraphs of backstory, used all together or spaced out. This will force you to examine closely what you include, saving the rest for later, and letting the story get cracking.

5. Memorable characters create cross-currents of emotion in the reader

We all know about inner conflict. A character is unsure about what he’s about to do, and there’s an argument in his heart and soul, giving him reasons both for and against the action. That’s good stuff, and one way to get there is to identify the fear a character feels in each scene.

But to create even greater cross-currents of emotion in the reader, consider having the character do something the absolute reverse of what the reader expects. Brainstorm ideas for this, and you’ll often find a great one down the list, beyond your predictability meter. Put that action in. Write it. Have other characters react to it.   

Only then find a way to justify the behavior, and work that into your material.

It was E. M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, who defined “round” (as opposed to “flat”) characters as those who are “capable of surprising us in a convincing way.”

4. Great villains are justified, at least to themselves

The antagonist (or as I like to put it, the Opponent) is someone who is dedicated to stopping the Lead. It does not have to be a villain, or “bad guy.” It just has to be someone on the other side of one definition of plot: two dogs and one bone.

When you do have a bad guy opponent, don’t fall into the trap of painting him with only one color. The pure-evil villain is boring and manipulative, and readers won’t fall for it. You’re also robbing them of a deeper reading experience (for which they’ll thank you by looking for your next book).

One exercise I give in workshops is the opponent’s closing argument. Pretend they have to address a jury and justify their actions. They are not going to argue, “Because I’m just a bad guy. I’m a psycho. I was born this way!” No bad guy thinks he’s bad. He thinks he’s right.

Make that argument. Weave the results into your book.

3. Don’t waste your minor characters

One of the biggest mistakes I see new writers make is putting stock characters into minor roles: The burly bartender, wiping glasses behind the bar; the boot-wearing, cowboy-hat-sporting, redneck truck driver; the saucy, wise-cracking waitress.

Instead, give each minor character something to set him or her apart from the stereotype. Think of:

• Going against type (a female truck driver, for example)

• An odd tick or quirk

• A distinct speaking style

Use minor characters as allies or irritants. Even those who have only one scene. A doorman, for example. Instead of his opening the door for your Lead, have him give the Lead a hard time. Or have your Lead in a hurry but the cab driver is lethargic and chatty.

A little time spent on spicing up minor characters will add mounds of reading pleasure to your readers.

2. Great characters delight us

When I ask people to name their favorite books or movies, and then ask why, it’s invariably because of one great character. As good as Harrison Ford is in The Fugitive, people always mention Tommy Lee Jones, and even his famous line, “I don’t care!”

The Silence of the Lambs? Two great characters. The absolutely unforgettable Hannibal Lecter, and the insecure but dogged trainee, Clarice Starling. Lecter delights us (because we are all a little twisted) with his wit, deviousness, and dietary habits. Clarice delights us because she’s the classic underdog who fights both professional and personal demons.

1. Great characters elevate us

Truly enduring characters end up teaching us something about humanity and, therefore, about ourselves. They elevate us. And that is true even if the character is tragic. As Aristotle pointed out long ago, the tragic character creates catharsis, a purging of the tragic flaw, thus making us better by subtraction.

On the positive side, I think of Harry Bosch and Atticus Finch, both on a seemingly impossible quest for justice. I’m the better for reading about them, and those are the kinds of books I always read more than once.

On the negative side, I think of the aforementioned Scarlett O’Hara. We are pulling for her to do the right thing, to get with it, to join the community of the good. Then she goes off an marries some other guy she doesn’t love and uses him mercilessly. When she finally suffers the consequences of her actions we, too, are duly warned.

So, TKZers, when you think of an unforgettable character, who comes to mind? What is it about this character that moves you? Elevates you? Makes you want more of the same?

18+